Ah, the blues. I must admit, when it comes to classic rock, my first love was and always will be the Rolling Stones. I picked up ‘Some Girls,’ my first album ever and it was the beginning of a life long obsession. The Rolling Stones, in many ways, were a gateway drug for me into the broad array of rock music in the world. The Stones led me to Zeppelin, then to the Beatles, Black Sabbath and beyond. It wasn’t long before I was in the basement of seedy used record stores looking for out of print Faces albums or Springsteen bootlegs. I made my friend Doug go to a used record store in a strip mall in Dallas after he’d just broken up with a girlfriend so I could look for the out of print Buckingham Nicks LP… a trip he still hasn’t forgiven me for, although it may be his unpleasant memories of that trip unrelated to “Buckingham Nicks.” I wasn’t musically sophisticated enough to understand what the root of my musical infatuation was. I didn’t understand that the common thread that links all the music I love is the blues.
By the 1960’s the blues was an underground music in the United States, segregated like so much was, in the black community. It took some groovy English youth to rediscover and reawaken interest in the blues in the States. Much of what came out of the British Invasion was what is now described as “blues rock.” There were so many key figures, people you don’t hear about any more, that were critical to that early blues rock movement. Alexis Korner was a guy that was at the center of a lot of it and he helped fan the flame of blues in London. If time travel is ever invented, you’ll know where to find me… 60s swinging London.
Another name that I don’t hear much any more is John Mayall, leader of the intrepid Blues Breakers. I posted about these British blues rock pioneer’s American cousins, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who were also 60s era masters of the blues, a few months ago. In the comment section, Moulty58 (whose blog, The Future Is Past is phenomenal, check it out) mentioned Mayall and the Blues Breakers. In the ensuing conversation he mentioned the album Mayall did with Peter Green, ‘A Hard Road.’ The only Mayall & the Bluesbreaker album I’d ever heard or heard of was the masterpiece, “Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton.” Could I have missed something? As a musical spelunker, I pride myself on owning anything I consider critical in music. Oh sure, I have some blindspots, like say, jazz, but I own most the LPs in the “Must Have” canon. I’m that weird guy who buys the live solo Gregg Allman albums or the solo Lowell George of Little Feat LP… Maybe I have a problem, but as Van Morrison sang, “it’s too late to stop now.” Perhaps I needed to give Mayall’s catalog another look.
In retrospect, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers could be looked at more as a musical collective than a band. They changed personnel more often than Yes, and that’s saying something. Almost every band has a connection to the Blues Breakers. Just on bass guitar alone, John McVie, Jack Bruce and Andy Fraser of Free fame all played with them. On drums, amongst a large number of people, Mick Fleetwood and Aynsley Dunbar both played with Mayall. I think Dunbar played in every band ever… I think he was even in Journey for a while. Mayall actually sang, played keyboards (mostly piano), guitar and harmonica. The thing about the Blues Breakers that is probably the most remarkable is the guitar talent that went through this band. Not only did Eric Clapton play with them but so did Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), and a very young Mick Taylor (The Rolling Stones). Those are just the big names. Rick Vito (Fleetwood Mac) and Jimmy McCulloch (Wings) also played with the Blues Breakers, just to name a few. Paul Butterfield even shows up playing harmonica on one album. It’s quite an impressive roster. It seems if you were a British rock band in the 70’s and needed a player, you looked no further than the Blues Breakers. It was like a British Prep school for guitarists.
I quickly began an investigation of the Blues Breaker’s catalog and found that I had indeed missed a couple of essential LPs, beyond “With Eric Clapton.” There are really three albums that I consider “essential” for blues or blues rock fans. As you might guess, it’s the three albums featuring the three greatest of the Blues Breaker’s guitarists. With all due respect to fans of “Blues From Laurel Canyon,” which does feature Mick Taylor, I consider that a John Mayall solo album. The Blues Breakers moniker had been abandoned by that time. Without further adieu, here are the three John Mayall and the Blues Breaker’s LPs every fan should check out:
Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton (1966)
When Eric Clapton, who judging by his autobiography was an enormous twat, left the Yardbirds because they were veering away from his “blues purist” view of music, there was a lot of speculation about what he’d do next. He joined the Blues Breakers and their popularity began to soar… just as that looked like it was going to peak, Clapton runs off to Greece with a group calling themselves “The Glands.” They must have been a group of teenage boys with a wanker name like that. Jeez, Eric. Anyway, he realized he’d made a mistake and came back to rejoin Mayall and the Blues Breakers. This album was the result and it’s a tour de force. I love Cream, but I truly think this was the best lead guitar playing of Clapton’s career. He plays with a strength and confidence I rarely hear. This album is considered a blues rock milestone. I read in Rolling Stone magazine that this record and Clapton’s solo LP, “From the Cradle,” taken together are Clapton’s greatest blues achievement. It’s hard to argue. The instrumental “Hideaway” is simply amazing. “What’d I Say,” the Ray Charles cover is inspired. “All Your Love” is the perfect blues tune. Clapton does his first vocal on Robert Johnson’s “Rambling On My Mind” one of his first and best Robert Johnson covers. Clapton split after this record to form Cream with Jack Bruce (also a Mayall alumni) and Ginger Baker. It’s a shame we don’t have more of Mayall and Clapton together, because it’s one of the greatest albums of all time.
A Hard Road (1967)
How do you replace a messianic guitarist (well, they did used to scrawl “Clapton is God” as graffiti) like Eric Clapton? You find Peter Green. I don’t know anybody outside of Ozzy Osbourne (Randy Rhoads, Jake E Lee, Zakk Wylde) with a nose for guitar talent like John Mayall. I was surprised when I first heard this record that the Blues Breakers, despite line up changes and losing Clapton didn’t miss a beat. This is a great blues/blues rock album with inspired guitar work. The Peter Green penned instrumental “The Supernatural” is worth the price of the LP alone. I may be crazy but I hear the seeds of “Black Magic Woman” in that tune. Great, great guitar work. Green’s guitar sound is different than Clapton’s and this may sound weird, but I almost feel like Peter Green’s guitar sounds… well, sadder. The guy really conveys emotion in the way he plays. Where Clapton was more powerful, Green is more expressive. Just one man’s opinion, and I don’t play guitar. I absolutely love the Elmore James’ cover, “Dust My Blues,” and the incendiary slide guitar Green plays. They also do two great Freddie King covers, the instrumental “The Stumble” which is another stand out and “Someday After While (You’ll Be Sorry)” that blew me away. “It’s Over,” the opening track is a great John Mayall penned tune as well. This is just a spectacular album that I never heard about. You definitely hear the seeds of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac on this album, which makes sense because after this record Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood split to form Fleetwood Mac… I guess the formula in the 60s was, do one album with Mayall, split and form a legendary band of your own… At least there was some additional material Peter Green recorded with Mayall that turned up on the remastered, “bonus track” version of the album that came out years later.
What do you do when you’ve lost not one, but two legendary lead guitar players. Apparently if you’re John Mayall you discover a teenage Mick Taylor. I had always known Taylor had gotten his start in the Blues Breakers but I’d never dug deep enough to check out his record with them. Actually, he stuck around for three albums, unlike Clapton and Green, before being recruited to join the Stones as Brian Jones’ replacement. “Crusade” is just another blues rock classic in the same vein as it’s two predecessors. The album kicks off with “Oh Pretty Woman” (not the Roy Orbison tune) and it’s again as if nothing has changed with the band. Although I will say I can tell Taylor’s guitar is different than Green’s. Mick Taylor had such an amazingly melodic way of playing the guitar. Even on these blues recordings I can hear how his lead guitar would mesh with Richard’s ragged rhythm guitar. There’s an instrumental on here “Snowy Wood” which is just fabulous playing (do I hear “Can You Hear Me Knocking” here?). Mayhall had employed a horn section on his previous LP, but never this prominently, they’re all over this record. I like the sax, harmonica interplay on “Man of Stone.” I love, love the version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” the old Willie Dixon tune that was also done by Led Zeppelin and years later the Rolling Stones, post-Taylor. “Driving Sideways” sounds like a tune a blues band would open a show with… This is just another great blues guitar album.
If you’re a fan of the blues, blues rock, Cream, the pre Buckingham Nicks Fleetwood Mac or the glory years of the Rolling Stones, there is a hell of a lot to like here. A lot of people own ‘With Eric Clapton’ and if you enjoy that record I can’t more highly recommend ‘A Hard Road’ and ‘Crusade.’ Mayall went on to have a long, storied career but other than ‘Blues From Laurel Canyon’ you’re not going to find better blues/blues rock than these three albums. Any fan of guitar will absolutely fall in love with these albums.
This isn’t cry in your beer blues, this shuffle around, chooglin’ music. Pour yourself something strong, dark and murky and start moving, baby!